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  • NRL Makaleng


Where did the South African braai come from?

Picture the scene, a large dusty cave, the entrance facing an open landscape. In the middle of the cave a small strong khoisan woman is preparing a fire. Once the fire is just perfect, she places a few chunks of bush meat from the previous day, onto the open coals. Smoke starts to roll off the fire, the meat starts to sizzle and the fat starts to crisp.

The origin of the Braai, or Barbecue as known in other parts of the world, is commonly thought to have originated from France. However, anyone who has met a South African will know,braaing is in our DNA.

Approximately 2 million years ago, pre-human hominids living in Gauteng's Cradle of Humankind caught and controlled fire for the very first time; South Africans have been cooking on open fire ever since.

Cooking on this controlled fire has also played a huge part in the evolution of mankind. Now, I don't mean evolution in the sense of Australopithecus afarensis to Homo Sapiens, but rather in how humans began to interact with each other, how they gathered food and of course how we digested food.

Food could now be gathered and stored more effectively, so that meant less time was spent foraging, chewing and digesting. In fact, with the invention of cooking, and the fact that food was now digested more easily, H. erectus developed a smaller, more efficient digestive tract, which freed up energy to enable larger brain growth.

It's no wonder that South Africans are so proud of their braais and I couldn’t put in better words than those I found in an article by the Sunday Times -“ The land on which we live almost literally glows with the embers that ignited the evolution of our species”.

Origin of the word Braai!

In South Africa, the word braai is the preferred term for referring to our beloved tradition of roasting meat over a fire. The word is derived from the Dutch word braden, meaning roast, and has become a term that has a much deeper meaning. The word braai evokes a feeling of family, togetherness and community and it breaches any social or economic divides. For this very reason, the 24th September was hallmarked as a day to celebrate culture and diversity, and braais are essential in bringing South Africans together so they can celebrate their heritage.

Shisanyama, another term commonly used in South Africa for barbecuing, further captures the spirit of the occasion. It’s literal translation is “burn meat” in Zulu, but has now become synonymous with the idea of meeting together and serving braai meat.

So why do we like braaing so much?

The Fire

A braai is not considered a braai if it's done on gas. Being able to start a fire and maintain it until the cooking is done is a right of passage for most young South Africans. It's a topic for conversation while standing around the fire, and it's definitely an ego thing. One idea considered as to why we are so fascinated with fire could be due to our primal instinct to protect ourselves and keep warm. However, the idea brought out by Dr Polly Wiessner, professor of anthropology at the University of Utah, showed that sitting around a campfire at night enables social bonding that rarely occurs during daylight.

The Drinks (aka “Dop”)

It's no secret that South Africans like to drink. We can hardly be blamed for this considering we have some of the finest wine producers in the world and our breweries are world famous. Braaing is a favorite pastime for most in SA and so it would only be natural to include one of our second favorite pastimes, having a drink!

The People

The world's greatest problems have essentially all been solved around a South African braai fire. Storytelling and philosophical debates are the cornerstone of the braai. People from all walks of life are united around the fire, regardless of their ethnicity, location or job. It's a level playing field, and if there’s one place that doesn’t grade you on who you are in the outside world, it's a Shisanyama.

Anywhere, Anytime

The South African BBQ is unique in that we really do not need any particular reason to have one. We also do not really need to have anything special to cook. Because most South Africans have learned braaing from a young age, as it is part of their way of life. Charcoal and wood is part of the Friday afternoon shopping list and any food will do. The more traditional menu will most probably have lamb loin cutlets, boerewors (long beef sausage) , a delicious marinated chicken sosatie (Skewer) and then a medley of salads and homemade bread. However, another popular menu for braais which is popular in most townships and it can vary from sheep head aka, a smiley (you need to see it to understand the name), chicken feet, and a personal favourite, mealie(i.e. corn on the cob) and a local favourite chakalaka. Braaing has something for everyone, from vegetarians to carnivores thus making it a prefered method of cooking for most South africans.

Fast forward 2 million years and you find yourself inside a busy roadhouse (aka. Tavern), surrounded by good people with one common goal - To eat succulent wood fired meat, enjoy a cold beer with friends and to feel the tribal earthy energy that only a massive fire can provide.

Humans around the world have forever been altered by the simple act of one early human slapping a piece of meat on a fire and braaing it. One thing is for certain that as long as there is wood or coal left in South Africa, we will be braaing! For those who are looking to experience new things, partaking in a South African braai can be an unique experience for any traveler.


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